The MHS Review 381 Vol. 11, NO. 3 • 1987
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David M. Greene
Writing about Ravel's String Quartet in his little book on that composer in The Great Composers Series (1947), the late Norman Demuth says, "Chamber music has a limited appeal (at the moment) and seems to be settled as the favourite form of the enlightened few." Norman, thou shouldst be living at this hour! Either there is more enlightenment around these days than one would dare hope for or else chamber music is "in."
It is often said that the Modern String Quartet began with Debussy and Ravel. In both instances the works in question were youthful efforts. To be sure, Ravel was 28 and Debussy 31, but the former had by then produced chiefly a few songs and piano pieces, and the latter not much more, though he had already begun work on Pelleas et Melisande. However, the quartets marked turning points in the careers of both composers, at which they began to break with tradition and to speak their own language.
Both quartets too proved to be isolated examples. Debussy had written a piano trio (unpublished) at the age of 17, and optimistically labeled the 1893 piece as premier quatuor, unwontedly giving it a key signature (G minor) and an opus number (10). But, as with the premiere rapsodie for clarinet, no deuxieme was forthcoming. An early violin sonata apart, the quartet was Ravel's first go at a chamber form; later he too wrote a piano trio, which he did publish.
Debussy dedicated his quartet to the great violinist-composer Eugene Ysaye (later conductor of the Cincinnati Symphony), whose group premiered it on December 29, 1893. The audience was largely professional or otherwise musically elite. There were differences of opinion, which included neither passionate acceptance nor loathing, but the score attracted no buyers in such places as Rouen and Evreux. Superficially its links with tradition were clear. To many it was suitably "modern," and parallels were invoked with Grieg, Franck, and the Russians. At least two of these were on target, since Debussy used Franck's "cyclic" device of basing his material on a single motif (heard at the outset), and since, as a satellite of Nadezhda von Meck, he had been well acquainted with the Russians.
Others astutely heard the influence of the Oriental musics that had so impressed the composer at the Paris Exposition a few years earlier. Paul Dukas wrote a review that noted the concentration and richness of the "melodic essence" and Debussy's ability to use dissonance without offending the ear. A more recent writer, Paul Griffiths, notes that, perhaps for the first time, the quartet becomes "an ensemble of different instruments to be joined in different combinations" rather than a conversation of equals.
There is no question that Ravel's quartet was influenced by Debussy's. He dedicated it, however, to Gabriel Faure, who supported him when the old fuddies at the Conservatoire wouldn't let him compete for the Rome Prize, and tossed the rascals out. Ravel let Faure tell him how he could improve the piece, and the emended version is the one we now have. Like Debussy's, the quartet is cyclic and, atypically for Ravel, abstract. Of it Demuth says that the composer eschewed the usual contrapuntal display for the sheer "making of lovely sounds," for which he terms it "a landmark in the history of chamber music and a beacon in the history of French music." Leave it to Ravel to bring home the beacon!
Review of The Only String Quartets by Debussy an Ravel